Arunachal Pradesh, one of the “Seven Sisters” of Northeast India, is the largest state in the northeast in terms of area (32,000 square miles) and it borders China, Burma and Bhutan. With a little over one million inhabitants, the density of population (31 per square mile) is the lowest among all Indian states. More than 80% of Arunachal’s land area is covered with forest and jungle and parts of the state remain unexplored. It has limited transport and communication infrastructure. With few highways, helicopter services or footpaths are the main transportation lifelines. The state’s population is largely tribal, with 26 dominant tribes, each with its own language and customs, and literally hundreds of sub-groups. The Apatanis are one of them.
Arunachal Pradesh’s indigenous communities are « protected » through the system of Inner Line Permits created by the British. No « outsider », even Indians Citizens from mainland, can enter Arunachal Pradesh without an Inner Line or a Protected Area Permit (which are both a real nightmare to obtain). Neither can they buy land, start a business or take up employment. The people of Arunachal, its political leaders and government officials are unanimous about retaining the Inner Line system. They are convinced that by keeping outsiders away, the Inner Line is protecting the life and culture of the indigenous people from the « outside world », even without which it’s already falling appart.
Unlike the rest of Arunachal Pradesh, this area is famous for having pine hills and mountain rice cultivations. In this mysterious and difficult-to-enter state of Arunachal Pradesh, lives amongst others the fascinating Apatani tribe. Unlike the other local tribes, the Apatanis are non-nomadic. They practice permanent wetland cultivation in hilly terrain by slicing the hills, when other tribes practice cultivation in dry land by cutting down forests.
The probably most captivating members are the older women of the tribe. Indeed, they wear facial tattoos and massive nose rings, called « yaping hurlo » in local language. This tradition, even if non-existent anymore now, comes from past times, when the Apatani women were considered to be the most beautiful in all of Arunachal Pradesh. Men of other tribes would often kidnap the Apatani women, forcing the Apatani men to tattoo the faces of their women and make them wear massive black nose plugs, in order to make them less appealing. Even if over time the meaning evolved into a symbol of strength and beauty, this tradition is now disappeared and, since the 1970′s, tatooed women often wanted to remove their tatoo, which makes the few tatooed women still alive even more difficult to meet.
Men wear the traditional braided hair knot at the top of their head.
Most Apatanis are loyal followers of the Donyi-Polo religion, who pray to the Sun (Donyi) and the Moon (Polo). When a misfortune occurs, they believe it is caused by certain evil spirits, and thus they make animals sacrifices, such as chickens, cows and other domestic animals, to appease those evil spirits. They also use to create some typical and delicate shrines made of bamboo, and eggshells, feathers, ropes, sometimes flowers in front of their houses in order to please the spirits and protect the family members living inside the house. The blood coming from the animal sacrifices is often spread out during the sacrifices over the shrines for thoses same reasons.
Another typical thing about the Apatanis are the babos and the lapangs. The babos are typical wooden structure poles erected in the village and around almost every Apatani’s houses. The lapangs are always built near the babos and are used as traditional meeting platforms. Both constructions are sacred and many of Apatanis rituals are associated with them.
The Apatani have incorporated the modern world in many ways, but the traditional culture and customs still keep their importance and meaning. Many of them are high-level government employees, doctors, and engineers and are working far away from their native villages. As in any other developing countries and remote areas, teenagers have been influenced by Western culture, but the traditional lifestyles are mostly still maintained.
Here is a selection of photographs from my solo reportage there.
(Click on the pictures to see them full size. Then use the arrows keys or mouse wheel to go to the next one. WARNING: Contains cruelty to animals at the end)